Two Churches, God's and Man's
The last few weeks in the Middle East have captured the attention of the entire world and there is an unprecedented interest again in what the Bible has to say about human history. As many of you perhaps know, this last week Time magazine featured in its religious section a very interesting discussion of the intentions of Israel in rebuilding the temple on the old temple site in Jerusalem. The outbreak again of sporadic fighting between Egypt and Israel at the Suez Canal this last week has reminded us that these events are far from settled and that the whole of the Near East is a cauldron boiling and apt to boil over again at any moment. Everyone acquainted with biblical prophecy is watching these events with tremendous interest, as I’m sure all of you are.
Now it is against this reawakened interest that we are devoting some evenings through these summer weeks to looking again at the statements of Scripture concerning prophetic events. And tonight we would like to center our attention upon what the word of God has to say about the church and its destiny, and specifically what it has to say about the two churches which actually exist today. Most of us do not think of the church as divided into two categories like this, but the Scriptures make very clear that there are in existence today two churches living side-by-side, intermingled, co-mingled, and the destiny of each is entirely distinct and different. It is only the Word of God that can guide us safely as to the identification of each and to an awareness of what the destiny of each group is.
I would like to begin tonight with a passage that occurs in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. Our message tonight is going to be very simple. It will be the review of several passages of Scripture, one after the other and an attempt to piece together what the Scriptures have to say about these prophetic themes. This thirteenth chapter of Matthew is a series of parables that Our Lord told as he was standing by the seaside, teaching by the shores of Galilee. In them he encompasses a preview of the entire age that will follow his first coming before his second return; in other words, the age in which we live. And, by means of various parables, he makes clear what will be certain of the features of this age and particularly how the forces of the age will be at work among the people of God during this time. These parables are all connected together – they are not isolated parables, this is one great teaching of Our Lord that is tied together and has unusual significance. That significance is brought out for us if you look first at verse 34 where Matthew says:
All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables. Indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, ‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’” (Matt. 13:34-35 RSV)
Now that marks this verse as an unusually significant passage. Here the Lord Jesus, as the great prophet of God, is fulfilling the Scripture that says he would open his mouth and utter predictions that had been hidden since the very foundation of the world. Earlier in this passage he reminded the disciples, in verse 13: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matt. 13:13 RSV) However, in verse 16 he says: “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear. Truly I say to you many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.” (Matt. 13:16-17 RSV) Here is an unusually important message of Our Lord. Now in the midst of this, among the parables he tells, is the parable familiarly known to us as the wheat and the tares, or as it’s known in the RSV as the wheat and weeds, beginning with verse 24, the thirteenth chapter:
Another parable he put before them, saying: the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came to him and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matt. 13:24-30 RSV)
Now this parable would be the subject of tremendous controversy if it had not been that Our Lord interpreted the parable for us. That interpretation, at the request of the disciples, begins in verse 36:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered: He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man and the field is the world. And the good seed means the sons of the kingdom, and the weeds are the sons of the evil one. And the enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so it will be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire. There men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear!” (Matt. 13:36-43 RSV)
There are several noteworthy things about that interpretation. One, you will notice the Lord identifies himself as the householder, the sower who sowed the good seed, and he said that the end would come at the end of the age. Therefore, this parable covers the entire age between his first coming and his second coming. If we find any place at all in human history, we find our place here in this parable. This is the age in which we live. Furthermore, he identifies this as the “kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven, he says, may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. The field is the world, but within that world of human society exists that which is called the kingdom of heaven. Now perhaps it may help if I diagram this a bit. The kingdom of heaven is what we would more likely call Christendom, for it involves as we will see from this parable not only those who are genuinely born again, regenerated individuals, but also those who make any profession of this at all. The kingdom of heaven, therefore, is the realm of profession of Christianity, what we would call Christendom, including all denominations, all cults, all sects, and all churches of every stripe and variety that openly confess and give adherence to the name of Jesus Christ. It is like, he said, “a man who sowed good seed in his field.” That is, there is a true element of belief in the kingdom of heaven, in Christendom.
There are genuine people of God within the realm and scope of the kingdom of heaven. But there are also evil ones, and he says this is the work of the enemy, the devil who came and after the beginning sowed amongst the wheat the seed of evil. Now the Lord Jesus identified the wheat as the children of the kingdom and he, as the Son of Man, scattered them among the field, or out into the world. You can see this as a picture of what took place on the day of Pentecost and following when, as the Son of Man, he poured out the Holy Spirit and, thus indwelling the hearts of those who were his, he flung them out into the world. They were to go out, beginning at Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and unto all the uttermost parts of the earth to carry the good news of the truth of God. But at the same time, secretly, invisibly, at night, as he suggests, an enemy came and planted in the midst of the true people of God those who would openly and overtly claim to be Christian, but inwardly would not be. The Lord Jesus had predicted this before. You remember he had said that many would come in his name saying, “Lord, Lord,” but would not enter into the kingdom. He would say to them at the end, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” and he speaks of those who come as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” outwardly appearing to be righteous, but inwardly actually antagonistic to all the things of God. So this is the kingdom of heaven.
Now in the kingdom of heaven, spanning the entire age between the comings of Our Lord, are these two seeds, the good seed and the evil seed. When the seeds began to spring up and become evident that they were good and evil, the servants of the householder said to him, “Did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it these weeds?” And he said, “An enemy has done this.” And then they said to him, “Well, what do you want us to do about it? Don’t you want us to go in there and rip them out and dig them out and get rid of them?” And his answer is very significant: “No,” he says, “Let them alone. Let them grow together until the harvest.” And he identified the harvest as the close of the age.
Now in the divisions of the kingdom of heaven or Christendom we men have made certain distinctions. If we think of the kingdom of heaven as dating here from the first coming of Christ until the second, we have the entire present age in between. Across the course of history there have arisen various divisions within the kingdom of heaven. The most noteworthy ones, of course, are the divisions into Catholics and Protestants. These are the two largest divisions that have taken place. There are others as well. And within these there formed still other divisions such as among the Catholics; there is the Roman Catholic church, the Greek Catholic church, the Russian Catholic church and the Coptic or Egyptian church. Of course, among the Protestants you know some of the divisions. There are the Methodists, the Baptists, the Lutherans – and we’re going to run out of space awfully fast here! – and the Pentecostalists, and all these others that formed divisions within Protestantism. Now that’s the way man makes his divisions, along vertical lines, dividing them all up into little camps.
But the instructive thing is that the Lord Jesus never made a division like that. He recognizes none of these distinctions. Never anywhere in the New Testament does he ever make a division on this level. His division runs horizontally, right across it and says that a part of it is the good seed which runs through all of these – any and all of them – and belongs to him. He identifies himself with it; it is that which he began. Then there are the weeds which also are found among the wheat clear through the whole thing. So the Lord’s division is on quite a different level than ours. These two, he says, will grow together until the harvest and there is no possibility of separating them. Every effort made to try to clarify or purify the situation will come to nothing because Our Lord has determined that the two shall grow together until the time of the harvest. Then he says the reapers will separate them and he identifies them for us – the angels. He says he will send the angels to separate them. The angels do their work invisibly. We seldom, if ever, see angels visibly, but they are working all the time. As Hebrews reminds us, they are ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who shall be the heirs of salvation and they are constantly at work. But at the close of the age they have a specific ministry of separating the wheat from the weeds.
Now I want to look a little more closely at this phrase “the close of the age” because that does not mean simply a termination point, when Our Lord’s coming brings the whole thing to an end. It rather is made clear in Scripture that it is a period time, relatively brief, in which a great number of events take place, occupying at least seven years in length for Daniel’s seventieth week. I don’t have time to identify it any more than that. Bible scholars think of it as at least seven years long and it will fall within this period of time known as the close of the age. It will come at the close before Our Lord’s coming and it will be at least seven years long. I rather think that there is indication, as many Bible scholars have suggested, that it is longer than that. The seventieth week falls within this period called the close of the age. What seems to me to be particularly significant about the present-day events – as brought out in a previous message about prophetic themes – is that when the Jews came into the old city of Jerusalem, recaptured again the temple site and took over the old city, they were fulfilling a prediction that Jesus himself had made when he said: “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.”
Now the times of the Gentiles is a very significant period. It began with Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion and capture of the city of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and, if we accept the termination points that Our Lord gave, it ended when the Jews recaptured the city of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. This would mean that something extremely significant has occurred and that a time has ended and a season has begun – the season of harvesting. The Lord Jesus said to the disciples (right after his resurrection when they said to him, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”): “The times and the seasons are not for you to know, but the Father has put them into his own power.” Nevertheless, these times and seasons are significant events. The Lord Jesus has indicated that the times of the Gentiles would end when the old city of Jerusalem is repossessed by the Jewish people. And if that be the case, we may well have slipped over into that close of the age which will encompass in its duration the seven years of Daniel’s seventieth week. I merely throw that out as a suggestion – that is not dogmatic teaching, but it is very significant.
Now, here we have these two lines of belief, the weeds and the wheat. They form, therefore, two churches: God’s church and man’s church, or, more accurately perhaps, God’s church and Satan’s church. The enemy that sowed the weeds is the devil, said Jesus. He himself was the one who sowed the good seed and they shall grow together until the close of the age when he will instruct the angels to do a specific thing. First, he says, I will tell the reapers: “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned.” Now exactly what that means is perhaps a subject of some conjecture, but it indicates, at least to me, that perhaps this is a ministry in which the false church will be gathered into large groups. It is highly significant that this is the day of church mergers when groups of churches are clumping together, driven as by some invisible force, to forget the differences that have separated them for ages and to come together, laying aside their differences and uniting into bundles of people. I am not suggesting that all these bundles are necessarily wrong. I don’t think this is made clear at all, as yet, while the true church remains on the scene. But this would be the first activity of the angels in the close of the age, that they would be gathering the weeds into bundles to be burned. At the same time Jesus said: “Gather the wheat into my barn,” which is the first suggestion we have in this passage that the true church is taken out at the time that the bundles begin to appear.
Now let’s leave this passage for the moment. We do have this suggestion at the close of it that the Son of Man will send his angels. He will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers and throw them into the furnace of fire. There men will weep and gnash their teeth. That could, of course, stand for the lake of fire that is mentioned in Revelation – the eternal doom of the wicked. Perhaps it does. Or, it could speak of a time of great and terrible trouble – the time when the fires of God’s judgments will be poured out upon the earth and during that time men shall weep and gnash their teeth. I rather think that this is the suggestion here – that it occurs during the time of the so-called Great Tribulation, closing with the terrible events of the “great and dreadful day of the Lord,” when the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give its light. The stars shall fall from the heaven; earthquakes shall shake and rend the earth. Then the false church shall face its time of judgment. But, on the other hand, he says that “the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear!” Now this is the first suggestion in the passages that we have looked at that indicate that the false church is a church which will go through the great tribulation, while the true church will escape it.
It is that theme that I would like to pursue further in other passages of Scripture. Let’s turn to the last book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation and in Chapter 17 we have a vision of an unusual figure who is called the great harlot:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers on earth have become drunk.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The women was arrayed with purple and scarlet and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery, Babylon the Great, Mother of Harlots, and of earth’s abominations. And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” (Rev. 17:1-6 RSV)
What a remarkable sight! In Scripture, whenever a woman is used symbolically it almost invariably stands for something out of place religiously. In the Old Testament the prophet Zechariah saw a woman caught up in a bushel basked and carried away to Babylon. It was a figure of the apostasy of Israel and their subsequent captivity in the land of Babylon. Here is a woman – a woman decked with wealth, with riches, with gold, jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a cup of abominations, of impurities and of fornication. Now fornication is used in Scripture spiritually to signify apostasy or heresy. So here is a religious figure, holding in her hand this golden cup of heresy and adultery; adulterated truth leading people astray into a false intimacy of relationship with a false god. At the same time she is a woman of great wealth and she is seen to be riding the beast which earlier in this letter is identifiable with the political realm of the revived Roman Empire of the last days, the federated states of the western world uniting their forces together. The beast has seven heads and ten horns; seven heads representing the seven various stages of its government and the ten horns representing a ten-kingdom empire which rises in the last times. The woman is riding the beast, that is, she is in control of it. She has dominated it and her name is “Mystery Babylon the Great.”
Now through all the Scriptures the name Babylon has a very significant implication. It is used to identify what might be called the root heresy of all time. Babylonianism, as we understand it from both the Old and the New Testament, is a desire to gain earthly power and prestige by the use of supposed religious authority. That is Babylonianism – it is an attempt to gain earthly power by the use of false religious authority. Wherever that appears, that is Babylonianism. It began back in ancient Babylon, where Babel was begun by the descendents of Cain who went out and erected a city and its name was Babel. There they decided to make a name for themselves. They did it by worshipping a false god and thus gathering the worship of the peoples of the world of that day and utilizing it to gain ascendancy, power and authority over them. Now that is the essence of Babylonianism. In the seventeenth chapter of Revelation we find further on that it is identified with the city of Rome:
This calls for a mind with wisdom: The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated. They are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must remain only for a little while.” (Rev. 17:9-10 RSV)
Those seven hills are a reference to the famous seven hills upon which the city of Rome is built. In the eighteenth verse of the chapter, the last verse, we are told: “The woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.” (Rev. 17:18 RSV) This could only be Rome in John’s day. Therefore this is identifiable with that religious apostasy which associated with the city of Rome, has spread throughout the earth, and yet is characterized by a desire for earthly power gained by the use of false religious authority. You can understand therefore why many bible students have identified this with the Roman Catholic church and there is a sense in which this is certainly accurate, because this is exactly what Rome has been in much of its history. But it is certainly not restricted to the Roman Catholic church. Babylonianism is as rife in Protestantism as it is in Catholicism. Wherever you find a church, a local church or a denomination or a group of denominations, that are seeking to exercise earthly authority and political power to change governments and influence legislatures and so on by the use of religious authority, you find Babylonianism. This is therefore a mark of the false church and the doom of this church is given to us later on in this letter, in the fifteenth verse of Revelation 17 John says:
He said to me, ‘The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot. They will make her desolate and naked and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.’” (Rev. 17:15-16 RSV)
Remember what Jesus said? The angels will cause the false church to be bound together into bundles to be burned. Here some strange force drives the nations of the earth, the governments of earth, to revolt against the false religious authority in their midst and to devour her – make her desolate and naked and devour her flesh and burn her with fire. And says John: “God has put it into their hearts.” “I will send my angels,” said the Lord Jesus, “who will do this.” God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving over their royal power to the beast until the words of God shall be fulfilled. Thus the end of Satan’s church is destruction by the peoples of earth in a holocaust of hate and revenge that will literally destroy the false church from among men.
Well, what about the true church? What is its destiny? Let us come back now and pick up the theme in the gospels. In the fourteenth chapter of John, his well-known passage when the Lord Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room and has announced to them in the closing words of chapter 13:
Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you shall follow afterward.’ And Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly I say to you, the cock will not crow till you have denied me three times.’” (John 13:36-38 RSV)
Then, evidently seeing the stricken look on the face of this apostle and the terrified looks of the other disciples, he adds these words: “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms (many abiding places).” (John 14:1-2 RSV) It is my personal belief that he was referring to the entire universe when he said “the Father’s house.” That is where God dwells. “In my Father’s house there are many places to live,” he says. Earth is one of them, but only one. “And if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself.” (John 14:2-3 RSV) That is the key for the destiny of the true church – “Take you to myself.” It is rather interesting that the New Testament never says that the church is going to go to heaven. Did you know that? We talk like that all the time, but it does not. It says that the church is going to be with the Lord – “Take you to myself and that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:3 RSV) That is to be the church’s destiny.
Now this is the first hint that the Lord has given of how he is going to solve the problem of gathering the wheat into his barn. First, he says, “I will come again and take you to myself.” That is all we have in this passage here. It was given to the disciples, to Peter, James, John and Paul to enlarge upon these words of Our Lord and to give us further inspired details concerning them. In the writings of Paul we find some very helpful further details about this coming to receive the church to himself. This is not in relationship to the world; we will see the difference between those in a moment. But now he is talking to his church and he says, “I am coming again to receiveyou to myself; where I am, there you will be also.”
Now, in First Corinthians, the fifteenth chapter (the great resurrection chapter), the apostle Paul is speaking about the believer’s hope of resurrection – because Christ lives, we too shall live. Because Christ is risen, we shall rise. In verse 51 he says: “Lo, I tell you a mystery.” Now that does not mean something mysterious; that means something that has been hidden up to now, now to be revealed. Now I tell you a sacred secret. “We shall not all sleep.” That is, we are not all going to die. “But we shall all be changed.” We may not all die, but we will all be changed. We are not going to go into the next life like we are. We won’t carry with us all the aches and pains and scars and all the other things we’ve gathered in this life. Some are going to die, most perhaps, but not all. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
Now most of us think of that as the blinking of an eye. That isn’t what it is at all. The blinking of an eye is much too slow. This is the twinkling of an eye. Ever see an eye twinkle? Just a slight movement of the eyeball and a flash of light comes forth. You can see it; the eye is constantly flashing as it moves and the slightest move makes a twinkling. That is what he is talking about – in the twinkling of an eye (instantaneously, without a word of warning). “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall all be changed.” When? “At the last trumpet.” “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we (living) shall be changed. For this perishable (or that is, this corruptible, meaning the dead ones – those who have died, their bodies have already begun to decay or are decayed), these corrupt ones must put on incorruption. And this mortal body (these bodies subject to death, but not yet dead) will put on immortality.” (1 Cor. 52-53 RSV) Like that, in the twinkling of an eye. “And when the perishable (or the corruptible) puts on the incorruptible, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?’” (1 Cor. 15:54-55 RSV) There is a temptation to dwell on that wonderful passage. That is the hope of the believer as he lays a loved one away in a grave – “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” And it will be, says Paul, at the “last trumpet.”
He gives us further light on this in first Thessalonians when writing to this church of new believers who were troubled by certain pressures, temptations and terrible persecutions that they were going through. He encourages them with certain words. They too were wondering about what had happened to their loved ones who died. They did not know whether they would be with them in heaven. They wrote to the apostle about this and in verse 13 of chapter 4 he said:
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thes. 4:13 RSV)
In other words, he says, I am going to clarify your doubts and uncertainties. I do not want you to be ignorant like you have been about this.
But since we believe that Jesus died and rose again-1>[that is the fundamental faith of all Christians], even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thes. 4:14 RSV)
They knew that Jesus was coming back again to reign in power and glory. Both the Old and the New Testaments spoke very eloquently about this return. Jesus himself had described it. He would come in great power and glory to establish his kingdom. And now, says Paul, he will bring with him these that have fallen asleep that you are so concerned about. Naturally, their question would be: How is this done? How can he bring with him those that have died? Their bodies are in the grave. Their literal bodies are going to come back with him, but how can this be? Well, he said, let me explain: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord…” (Here is a revealed mystery; the same mystery that he made reference to in 1 Corinthians 15 – “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” – here it is again), “That we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…” – now here he used a very special word for the “coming of the Lord.” It is the wordparousia in the Greek, which means not merely a coming, but a presence – the coming of the Lord and his continuing presence afterward. I want you to remember that because we are going to look a little more closely at it in another passage.
“We who are alive” he says, (who are left until theparousia, the presence of the Lord) “shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thes. 4:15 RSV) (We are not going up first; don’t worry about them, they are not going to be left behind.) “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God (the last trumpet). And the dead in Christ will rise first (don’t worry about them, he says, they’re going to go up first).” They get a head start. As someone has said, it’s because they have six feet further to go! “Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds (or in clouds, I think it doesn’t mean in the clouds, but in clouds of saints) to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thes. 4:16-17 RSV) What did Jesus say? “I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there you may be also.” (John 14:3 RSV) “So shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thes. 4:17-18 RSV) He said you don’t have to worry, the dead in Christ are going to rise first. That is how it will be possible for Jesus to bring them back with him when he comes in glory. There is going to be a preceding coming which he calls here a presence that will come first. The Lord Jesus will descend first for his church and bring them all together, the dead and the living both. Then later they shall appear with him in glory, when he appears to reign. So this is how they can come back with Him. It will be, as he declares by the word of the Lord, a previous coming that will make this possible, a coming for his church alone, exactly as the Lord Himself had said.
Now he goes on: “But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you [about those].” (1 Thes. 5:1 RSV) You have all the Scriptures about those, and that is all you can know about them. Remember Jesus had said, “The times and the seasons are not for you to know. The Father has put them in His own power.” Only what has been revealed about them is all anyone knows. “But you yourselves know well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thes. 5:2 RSV) This has been foretold. The Day of the Lord is this time of tribulation and of judgment identified in both the book of Revelation and the Old Testament as the day of God’s wrath – “The great day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand?” – the day when the judgments of God are poured out upon a Christ-rejecting earth. That day, says the apostle, will come like a thief in the night, that is, suddenly, unexpectedly to the people of earth.
When people say there is peace and security, then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child. And there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. No, you are the sons of the day. You are the sons of light. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then let us not sleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thes. 5:3-8 RSV)
Now he does not mean salvation from hell. That was already long since theirs. He means salvation from the day of wrath which is to come for he goes right on: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, so that whether we wake or sleep, (whether we are dead or alive when He comes, it does not make any difference), we might live together with Him.” (1 Thes. 5:9-10 RSV) That’s quite clear, isn’t it? He comes first for his church and we are not destined for that period of wrath or judgment, but we are to be caught up together with Him in the clouds.
Now let’s move to another passage in connection with this, second Thessalonians, chapter 2, for here again we have a passage that helps us considerably in this matter determining the time of the destiny of the true church. “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Here he uses that special word again –parousia, which means presence. It is not merely a single coming, but the presence of the Lord afterward.) “…and our assembling to meet him.” You see how the two are identified together? When he comes in this quiet, silent, invisible coming only for his church, only his own will see him. And then he remains here on earth in a behind-the-scenes ministry much as he was here during the days of his post-resurrection ministry. Remember how he would appear and disappear? He was there, but he wasn’t there, for forty days and forty nights. Now that is the way he comes again and immediately the church is with him so that wherever he goes during that time, up and down the face of the earth, the church is with him. “So shall we ever be with the Lord,” says the apostle.
“And now,” says Paul, “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to be from us to the effect that the day of the Lord had come.” (2 Thes. 2:1-2 RSV) Evidently there were some people in Thessalonica that were saying the tribulations they were going through was the Great Tribulation. The day of the Lord had come. They were in it already. And some had even suggested that Paul had said so and perhaps there was even a forged letter bearing his name that said that they were in the day of the Lord. Now he says don’t believe this kind of nonsense. “For remember,” he says, “let no one deceive you in any way.” For that day will not come unless something happens first. The rebellion comes first.
That word rebellion is a word that requires a little more study. It is the Greek wordapostasia. You can see how it relates to our word apostasy. We anglicized it to get our word apostasy. It means basically “a departure.” Of course you can see that an apostasy is a departure from the faith and sometimes it is used that way in Scripture. The interesting thing is that when it is used that way, it has those words added to it – “a departure from the faith” – indicating that this word all by itself does not mean necessarily a departure from the faith, just a departure. Suppose you translate it that way, as increasingly I find Greek scholars are translating this word. “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the departure comes first.” (2 Thes. 2:3 RSV) What departure? Why, the departure of the saints – the one he just referred to, our gathering together unto him; our gathering to meet him!
Now, don’t be deceived, he said, and don’t be alarmed; how could you be in the day of the Lord? The church’s departure comes first. And in that day of the Lord “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship so that he takes his seat in the temple of God proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thes. 2:3-4 RSV) This is the Antichrist, the man of sin, the lawless one. In Verse 8, “And then the lawless one will be revealed,” (during this period of time; in the midst of the week, we are told in Daniel; his true character will be manifest), “and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming.” (2 Thes. 2:8 RSV) That is the coming at the end in glory and power.
Now let’s look at that passage where the Lord Jesus himself indicates these two phases or distinctions in his coming. Matthew 24 is the great prophetic passage from the lips of the Lord himself. The disciples had come to him and said, “Tell us when will this be,” (that is, the destruction of the temple) “and what will be the sign of your coming,” (there they use that wordparousia) “and of the close of the age?” (Matt. 24:3 RSV) And in answering Jesus set forth truth about the intervening age: he said it would be a time of wars and rumors of wars, a time when there would be persecution, tribulation and the love of many would grow cold. There would come times of pressure, earthquakes and famines; all these things would run their course through the whole time, and the gospel would be preached unto all the nations. And then, he said, the close of the age, the end, will come. This brief period of time, of seven years or more in length, will begin. In the midst of the period, the time will be identified by the desolating sacrilege, (in verse 15) spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place. That is what Paul referred to: the man of sin who exalts himself as though he were God and claims to be God, standing in the temple that must be rebuilt in Jerusalem. He stands in the holy place and identifies himself as God. Then Jesus says, “There will come great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matt. 24:21 RSV) In verse 29 he says:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matt. 24:29-30 RSV)
Every eye shall see him, we are told in another place; being visible to all the earth at once, coming in power and great glory to reign over the nations. Now that is a visible coming, isn’t it? And one preceded by unmistakable signs: the sun darkening, the moon not giving its light, the stars falling from heaven. All this will be troubling the whole earth, as Luke tells us in Chapter 21. Men’s hearts will fail them for fear of looking after the things coming on the face of the earth, the sea and the waves roaring. Evidently some tremendous cosmic disturbance will create havoc in the natural world, causing volcanoes to erupt, earthquakes to shake the frame of the earth and terrible famines and pestilences and all the things described in the book of Revelation. And after that he will be seen in power and great glory. Now, how can that be like “a thief in the night?” How could his coming be unexpected, if this is the one that is referred to? Everyone will be expecting it, won’t they? Anyone who has a bible or who has ever heard anything about it will know what is going to happen. Even today, let some little fight start between an Israeli and an Arab on the boundary of the Suez Canal and the whole world starts thumbing the Bible. So how is this going to happen unexpectedly? There is no other explanation but that there is another coming that is unexpected and Jesus refers to it in Matthew 24, verse 36. Twice he uses the peculiar phrase, theparousia, the coming with a presence following:
“But of that day and hour no one knows(no signs before it), not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming(theparousia) of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark.” (Matt. 24:36-37 RSV)
You have probably heard many messages that try to indicate that the signs of the repetition of the days of Noah would be the rising divorce rate and the terrible gluttony and so on as though this was something wrong. But this is what Our Lord means: there is nothing wrong here; eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage is normal living. He is just saying that life would be going on without anything different or unusual happening. And suddenly, as in the flood, it will all begin, like a thief in the night. It will come suddenly, unexpectedly. “And they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man. Then two men will in the field: one is suddenly taken and the other left.” (Matt. 24:39-40 RSV) Remember what Paul said: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed…this corruptible will put on incorruption, this mortal must put on immortality. The Lord shall descend and we shall be caught up together to be with him.” “Two women will be grinding at the mill: one is taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:42 RSV)
Let me close with this additional word. In Luke 21 there is a parallel passage, Luke’s account of the same message which adds certain details. It is instructive to read the chapter through, but particularly verse 34 in which he records the words of Jesus: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life.” (Luke 21:34 RSV) There is the problem: getting so wrapped up in business as usual, everything going on as usual, making money and getting married and eating and drinking and never a thought to the future. “Take heed,” he says, that “that day come upon you suddenly like a snare. For it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, pray that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:35-36 RSV)
Now strength to escape does not mean living a life of good works. It means having the life of Christ in you. That is the only place that strength comes from; it means to be born again. He is telling all the people of the world to be serious about this, take these things soberly, remember that life is not going to go on forever the way it has been. Suddenly it is all going to come to an end. If you have not yet been born again, if you do not have the life of God, if you are not one of the “good seed,” then you will have to go through all these things. Pray that you may have the strength, the life from him to escape all these things and to be with him, to “stand before the Son of Man.” His promise to those is: “I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there you may be also.” This is clear, isn’t it, when we put the scriptures together, and sobering.
Our Lord Jesus, it’s almost as thoughyou have taught this to us here tonight. These words search us and grip us in the face of the amazing events of our day. What a privileged generation we are, that we may be living in these days when the close of the age, foretold so many hundreds of years ago, have begun. What manner of people ought we to be – in soberness and seriousness of life, giving ourselves to that which is of vital and great concern to thee in these days. Help us, young and old alike, to turn from the blandishments and the endearments of the world that is doomed to destruction, and to give ourselves to the ministry of love and concern and devotion.
Sermon transcript and recording © 1995 by Ray Stedman Ministries, owner of sole copyright by assignment from the author. For permission to use this content, please review www.RayStedman.org/permissions. Subject to permissions policy, all rights reserved.